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Innovative Technologies: Sweet Deal for Cocoa Production?

Posted Jul 31 2005 9:00pm

Innovative Technologies: Sweet Deal for Cocoa Production?

Formal Correction: This article has been formally corrected to address the following errors.

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David A. Taylor

Citation: Taylor DA 2005. Innovative Technologies: Sweet Deal for Cocoa Production? Environ Health Perspect 113:A516-A516. doi:10.1289/ehp.113-a516

How can you not like a technology that gets the basic ingredient of chocolate to market faster? That’s the promise of a cocoa bean–drying technology recently introduced in Uganda by the Italian chocolate company ICAM, based north of Milan. The idea is simple: farmers use plastic sheeting to amplify the sun’s rays and dry beans faster and more thoroughly. According to a January 2005 report on SciDev.Net, an online newsletter of science and technology, a processing plant in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala is the first in central and eastern Africa to use this new method. It’s a method that may well help small farmers in this and other developing countries better compete in the global cocoa market.

Cocoa quality depends on several factors, including the beans’ moisture content (generallly, drier is better) and the absence of mold and fungi. Drying the beans reduces the risk of mold and fungi, and preserves the cocoa’s desirable taste and aroma.

Typically, cocoa farmers spread harvested beans on the ground and dry them in the sun, down to about 10% moisture content. Exporters then purchase the beans and dry them further to an optimal 7–7.5%, either by sun-drying again or baking in ovens.

In the new method, plastic sheeting is suspended on an aluminum frame above the beans, which are raked out beneath on mats. The special polyethylene sheets convert the sun’s ultraviolet rays to infrared, heating the beans to 50–60°C and allowing the beans to reach the requisite 7% faster than regular sun-drying. Joseph Adhum, managing director of JOACHIPO Commercial Enterprises (the Ugandan exporting firm that purchased the plastic in September 2004), told SciDev.Net his firm dried 26 metric tons of cocoa beans in just two days last November (traditional drying can take two weeks). The company is testing the plastic for faster drying of tomatoes and sesame seeds as well.

The plastic is also designed to withstand harsh conditions of sun, wind, and rain. JOACHIPO and ICAM paid US$60,000 for the sheeting—too expensive for growers, but within reach for exporting firms.

Advocates say the reduction in drying time could help boost Uganda’s cocoa exports. Although British colonizers introduced the cacao plant (the source of cocoa beans) to Uganda in the early 1900s, cocoa has never become a major export crop compared with coffee. But with cocoa bean prices around US$1,500 per metric ton, this crop promises nearly three times more return by weight than coffee.

The technology’s advocates say the plastic also kills mold and fungi more thoroughly, and thus makes it easier for Ugandan cocoa to meet European health requirements for imports. Some experts, however, say that’s not currently a problem. Jason Wolfe, program officer at Enterprise Works/VITA, a nonprofit technical organization, says the main issues for growers and exporters are not health problems, but knowledge of which grades of beans are desired by the market. Likewise, Peter van Grinsven, field research manager for the Cocoa Sustainability project of Master-foods BV (which owns the Mars snack and candy company), is skeptical of the plastic’s benefits. He says, “Conventional drying, if done properly, doesn’t pose a problem.”

Growing cocoa beans offers small-scale farmers in Uganda and other tropical countries a livelihood from a product that has strong foreign demand and local environmental benefits, according to researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute. Cacao bushes can grow on small parcels of land and on poor soils, two facts that make it feasible for small farms and women growers, noted institute scientists in their February 2002 report Empowering Women and Fighting Poverty: Cocoa and Land Rights in West Africa. Cacao bushes protect those fragile soils from erosion, and give needed shade to tree seedlings that can help restore biodiversity to cropland.

Furthermore, cacao can be planted alongside food crops, offering a cash source to small farmers who rely on their land for subsistence. More than 85% of the world’s cocoa beans are grown by small-scale family farmers, mainly in West Africa but also in Southeast Asia and Latin America, says Bill Guyton, president of the World Cocoa Foundation, an industry-supported organization based in Virginia.

These factors can appeal to U.S. food sellers, who are finding market advantages in more transparent links to their overseas suppliers, especially when they can show a crop’s environmental and health benefits. For example, Newman’s Own Organics, which sells organic chocolate, has seen a steady rise in sales each year, according to Camille Littlejohn, a customer service representative for the firm.

Consuming cocoa products in moderate amounts can be healthy, too. Sources including a review article published in the January 2005 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition note that flavonoids in cocoa have been found to improve vascular function and reduce risk of vascular disease. And research published in the June 2005 issue of the American Journal of Hypertension demonstrates for the first time that dark chocolate has an acute and potent dilating effect on muscular arteries and reduces so-called wave reflections, providing a mechanism for how chocolate may protect the cardiovascular system.

Figures and Tables 

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Making beans count.

A new method of drying cocoa beans may allow Africa’s small farmers to get better-quality products to market faster than before, allowing them an opening into the global chocolate market.

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